COUNCIL MEMBERS FIND TROUBLE WITH CONTRACT
City staff awarded code enforcement contract to frequent critic Ben Holder
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Council members divided over a code enforcement contract between the City of Greensboro and Ben Holder, a blogger, former at-large City Council candidate and frequent commenter at public meetings.
While some council members feel that Holder’s professional experience qualifies him for the job, others criticized the hiring process as unorthodox, saying that Holder’s confrontational history with members of Council should be cause for concern.
In the last several months, Holder has been outspoken about what he feels to be negligence in the maintenance of properties that include corner markets and a downtown property owned by council member Nancy Hoffman.
During a City Council meeting on June 3, Holder presented a slideshow of dilapidated properties on downtown Lewis Street, one owned by Hoffman. Holder accused Hoffman of hypocrisy for not keeping her properties up to a code that she herself voted for. Holder then turned his back and walked out of the chambers as Hoffman, Mayor Nancy Vaughan and other council members tried to regain his attention.
On June 13 the City issued a request for proposals (RFP) for code enforcement services. The city needed assistance with special projects related to housing conditions.
“The Neighborhood Development Department routinely bids and retains contracts for multiple services including nuisance and board-up work, testing and inspections, and code enforcement services,” said Greensboro Communication Specialist Jake Keys.
“Our housing department is severely understaffed,” said Mayor Vaughan. “And as you know, housing is an extremely important issue to us.”
The city awarded contracts to the two bidders who responded, Ben Holder and Beth McKee-Huger of the Greensboro Housing Coalition.
One of the special projects highlighted in the RFP is code enforcement for Heritage House in Greensboro. Councilwoman Sharon Hightower felt that the contract infringed upon her efforts as someone who had already invested time and energy into visiting Heritage House every week.
“I’m very upset,” said Hightower. “I’m very disappointed that we are operating in this way. I’m a person on this council and I keep getting overlooked and I just don’t understand that.”
Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter felt it was an insult to Council for the City Manager’s office to hire someone who has been known to publicly berate council members during meetings and on his blog.
“This has certainly gone behind council’s back with someone who has stood here and screamed at almost every person on this council,” said Abuzuaiter. “I’m not sure what is going on here, but it does not smell pretty.”
Other council members sought to provide perspective later in the week.
“I was on the wrong end of Ben’s whipping stick half a dozen years ago, he blogged me bloody, but that was his right,” said Councilman Mike Barber. “I would also say that some of the very council persons that are raising issues about bloggers and arrests and money mismanagement need to have a look at their own records.”
Holder’s blog, thetroublemaker.blogspot.com, is currently set to private.
In light of Holder’s colorful personality, Vaughan said the applicants were hired for professional reasons. “They were chosen based on their skills, not their personalities,” said Vaughan.
Vaughan was listed as one of Holder’s references on his application, along with Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Councilman Mike Barber.
While Barber said that Holder had not asked him to be a reference for this specific project, Barber had previously offered to vouch for Holder for maintenance related projects.
“I try to focus on his talents, of which he has many,” said Barber. “His presentation is not always the best but Ben and Beth have done a number of things that have been very good for the City of Greensboro.”
While Holder’s style is divisive, the terms and timing of his contract with the City appeared dubious to some council members.
In the contact between Holder and the City of Greensboro, terms were negotiated for an initial payment of $2,000 before Holder provided proof of liability insurance.
In the RFP posted by the City on June 13, The City required a copy of a local business license and proof of liability insurance for every proposal in addition to a letter summarizing experience, three professional references, and an hourly billing rate.
Holder responded to the RFP on June 19 and requested an hourly rate of $60, with 40 hours pay required in advance. In his response Holder also negotiated that, “Upon award, liability insurance and business license will be provided.”
The City awarded a contract to Holder on June 30 under the terms of a $45 billing rate and a payment of $2,000 provided that Holder submit an initial Summary of Recommendations for proposed projects within 48 hours.
Holder submitted his Summary of Recommendations that day, and the City paid him $2,000 on July 1.
Holder was issued a certificate of liability insurance on July 10.
City Manager Jim Westmoreland emailed council July 15 addressing members who had concerns about the contract with Holder. Westmoreland sought to stifle the desire some members expressed to speak about the contract at the meeting later that night. West moreland advised that council members bring their concerns to the City Manager’s office directly, rather than to speak publicly about the contract.
But some members expressed outrage over the hiring process when the matter came up during the public comment period. The procedure was atypical for contracts, council members said, as the city only posted the RFP online.
Communications Manager for the City of Greensboro Donnie Turlington later said that it is within the authority of the City to negotiate these types of contract stipulations.
“Standard practice is what is in the best interest of the City,” said Turlington. “In this case, there were so few bidders for the contract that the City felt it was in its best interest to move forward with the contracts.”
Turlington confirmed that Holder was employed by the City to undertake projects between the time of his awarded contract on June 30 and the start of his liability insurance on July 10.
The city only received responses from two bidders after posting the RFP to the web. According to Turlington, the City promoted the RFP more than would be typical for such a project. Turlington attributes the low number of respondents to the fact that the work involved required a unique and specific set of skills.
While Turlington also said that it is not unusual for contracts to be approved within a day of submittal, the short turnaround is raising some eyebrows.
“This contract was shoved through,” said Abuzuaiter. “This is the perfect way to keep him off the blogs for six months.”
In a phone interview later in the week, Barber disagreed.
“I think the people who are concerned that government is moving too rapidly, might be the problem with government,” said Barber. “This has nothing to do with process, this is about a couple of council members having a disdain for a person.”
– To view the city manager’s email, the contract with Holder and Holder’s initial report on the Heritage House please visit www.yesweekly.com. !